Orsted announced Friday that the clean energy company plans to protect almost 1,000 acres of the 1,700-acre Smiley’s Meadow from future development as it begins construction this week on Mockingbird Solar Center west of Paris off Highway 82. Completion is expected in 2024.
While Orsted has roughly 3,900 acres under lease from landowners, the company is purchasing almost 1,000 acres of the Smiley-Woodfin Native Prairie Grassland for the purpose of donating it to The Nature Conservancy, a national organization with a goal to protect the environment.
The Orsted-TNC conservation effort will be the largest preservation effort on record for this type of native prairie, and is the Denmark-based company’s first biodiversity initiative in the United States, according to company officials.
Less than 1 % of the original tallgrass prairies of Texas survive today, and less than 5 % remain nationally. Smiley-Woodfin Meadow is the largest contiguous remnant of a rare and threatened type of native prairie found in only a few counties of North Texas. The prairie remains the largest supplier of native hay in the state, according to a Texas Historical Commission marker.
“We need to deliver green energy for this generation while protecting natural habitats for the next,” Orsted biodiversity specialist Daniel Willard said. “That is why we’ve prioritized the Smiley-Woodfin Prairie in Texas as our first biodiversity initiative in the United States. We want to thank The Nature Conservancy for working with us on this conservation effort. Drawing on both internal expertise and outside guidance, we will continue to look for opportunities to protect the prairie and ensure that native plants and pollinators thrive.”
The Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy reached out to Orsted in early 2021 upon learning of the company’s plan to build the solar center on the prairie, according to TNC land protection strategy director David Bezanson of Austin.
“They were immediately responsive to us because as it turned out, I don’t think they were fully aware of the resource value of the property,” Bezanson said. “It soon became just a matter of feasibility on how Orsted could meet their commitment and also conserve some of the land.
In addition to dedicating the almost 1,000 acres, Bezanson said Orsted will work with TNC on other ways to mitigate damage on other areas of the solar center.
“Based on what I’ve seen in other sites, the installation of panels is damaging and causes disturbance, but the panels themselves once in place are not necessarily shading out the prairie,” Bezanson said. “Orsted has asked for our guidance on how to minimize the impact during installation, and they are interested in restoring some of the disturbed areas and even some of the non prairie areas on the property.”
News of plans for the multimillion solar farm came in late 2020 when Orsted first approached Lamar County Commissioners’ Court and both the North Lamar and Chisum school districts about property tax relief.
Expected to be valued in the $475 million range, roughly one third of the farm is planned in North Lamar ISD with the remainder in Chisum ISD, according to newspaper files. In exchange for property tax relief, Lamar County is expected to receive $6.7 million in payments over a 10-year period while North Lamar ISD expects $1.7 million and Chisum ISD roughly $4.4 million over the same period.
During the life of the project, Mockingbird Solar Center is expected to inject over $215 million into the local economy and produce enough clean clean energy to power more than 80,000 homes, according to company officials.
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